Interactive Voice Response: A thorough guide for any business

Everything you need to know about interactive voice response (IVR), for you, your team and your business

Interactive Voice Response: A thorough guide for any business
Maya | Sept. 14, 2020

What is IVR?

IVR stands for Interactive Voice Response, and it describes what we use when we’re on a phone call but we’re doing more than just talking directly to another human being — so we might be communicating by pressing buttons/numbers, or talking to a recorded message that we know is recognizing our specific words.

IVR solutions have become such an everyday part of phone systems nowadays, that when we’re calling a business in particular it would actually be quite surprising to get straight through to a human on the other side — instead, we expect an IVR system to mediate our incoming call, and that this will be the most effective way to get our query directed to the right place and resolved fast.

What is IVR?

A little history of IVR

While modern business cloud phone systems like Ringover enable elegant and sophisticated IVR deployment, the actual technology behind the idea is far from new. For decades, people have interacted with phone systems both through their voice, and through dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF) signaling.

You know when you dial a phone number manually, each number has a differently pitched sound associated with it? Actually, it’s a pair of frequencies, now defined by an AT+T protocol. Those DTMF signals have been understood by phones since the 1960s when Bell introduced it’s Touch-Tone system. But it really came into its own in the 1980s, by which time technology had caught up with the storage and replay of human voice recordings, to be used alongside the tone recognition — and meant that businesses could offer basic routing of inbound calls, like ‘dial one for accounts, dial two for customer service’, etc, replacing the need for human receptionists to perform this role and manually put callers through.

This was soon followed by rudimentary voice recognition, which when it was first introduced was frustratingly inaccurate.

When a robot voice asked you which city you wanted to book cinema tickets for then repeated back to you somewhere completely different that was hundreds of miles away, people wanted to scream - and frequently stabbed away at the hash key or any other combination to try to reach a human operator.

But as with all technologies, it evolved and improved with use, and gradually greater volumes of inquiries could be handled automatically, ensuring that if you did end up speaking to a real live person at some point they were probably the best person to help you and already had some context about your call.*

Interactive Voice Response: Definition, Benefits and Setup

Different kinds of IVR today

Nowadays tools like Ringover offer really flexible ways to configure an IVR system, to best meet the needs of both the customer and the organization. They can respond effectively to both voice and tone input, and instantly connect these input to back-end databases and CRMs — for example, you might call a courier company to check on a delivery, and in the first instance be asked to enter the delivery reference number, then encounter a menu asking you to select between reporting a missing item, or rearranging a time slot because you’re going to be out.

Single and multi-level IVRs

This is an example of a multi-level IVR call center, because it acts through multiple levels. In this situation with the courier service, the system immediately recognizes that this is a live reference number for a package which is currently out for delivery but not yet signed for, so it offers up specific relevant options only at the next level. It doesn’t offer an option to say that a parcel is damaged or you need to arrange a collection, because that won’t be relevant to the customer who hasn’t received their goods yet.

Different kinds of IVR today

When this is implemented with consideration and thought it can save the caller a lot of time, because they’ll end up speaking to the right person as quickly as possible — for example, the one support agent who is specialized in helping people use that product they are having difficulties with, or the person whose job it is to chase those late deliveries. However, multi-level IVRs need to be deployed carefully, because it can be frustrating for callers who realize they may have chosen the wrong route several clicks back, and reached a dead end — whereas they feel that if they could just explain to a real person, their problem might be quickly sorted out.

For this reason some organizations adopt a policy of strictly single-level IVRs (which have also been around longer, and are technologically a simpler implementation). This works best when there are large teams and categories involved, and you can simply route through to a department like customer support or sales via a single click — and then it might ring out to the entire contact center, so the next available agent can pick up and deal.

Single level IVR numbers are super quick for your customers to navigate, but can lead to their having to explain more once their call is answered, or get transferred or escalated manually to someone better able to help them. In that event, a multi-level IVR service will save customers time and frustration in the end. You can decide based on what you know about your customers, and what they will prefer, in terms of how to interact.

Use cases of IVRs

As you can imagine there are a million different ways to use IVR solutions, to support the quality of conversation you have with your customers. Here are some specific examples, which you might be able to apply in your own business.

To provide out-of-hours coverage

To advertise and inform

To get to the right person first time

To collect relevant information

To optimize your call center

To cope with the ebb and flow of call volume

To get people out of your call queue altogether!

Why use IVR?

Why use IVR?

As you can see from the use cases above, there are many great examples of IVR use which apply in different circumstances.

It’s important to appreciate that, far from being an inconvenience to the customer, modern IVR solutions are so accurate and sophisticated that they can save a great deal of time and effort. Provided you design it sensitively and creatively and monitor the impact of any changes through your contact center metrics, your IVR service is a great asset to your business.

Here are some benefits you can expect to see:

Improved call center metrics

Reduced call center operation costs

Create a professional impression of your business

IVR best practices

As you can see, IVRs are hugely powerful tools, which can benefit a range of organizations in different ways. The way you will configure your own depends on the many factors discussed above, but there are a range of best practices which apply to any IVR set-up.

Design your decision-tree with care

Keep the messages as short and clear as possible

Use clear professional recordings

Provide an escape hatch

The future of IVR and your business

While there will always be customers with unique needs, increasing automation driven by artificial intelligence will extend the power of IVR solutions to manage growing numbers of inquiries without a human agent at all.

This is probably where the future of customer service lies, in the majority of cases - human interaction being a specialist service, while we all grow increasingly accustomed to guided self-service. Even now we know when we’re talking to an automated bot, and we’re used to adjusting the way we speak, to our smart assistants in our phones and speakers - using transactional, direct instructions.

As natural voice recognition technology continues to advance, we might reach the point of not knowing whether we’re talking to a human or a bot - nor caring, provided our needs are met.

So while this may be a little while off in the future for most use cases, getting a thorough understanding and effective implementation of IVR technology in your business now, will stand you in good shape to meet the needs of your customers into the future.

A glossary of Interactive Voice Response terms

DTMF

The unique and universal sound generated by each number on the keypad, which enables interaction with the phone via any device with a numeric interface.

Multi-level IVR

A modern and sophisticated routing system wherein selection of a first option triggers a new menu

Automatic call distributor (ACD)

A telephony system that routes incoming calls based on rules that have been pre-defined according to the company’s specific setup or requirements.

IVR survey

Multi-level IVRs can be used to collect survey data, simply by routing callers through options - press 1 if you are very satisfied, 2 if you are satisfied, etc. This is typically used after an agent interaction, to evaluate their performance

CTI

Computer Telephony Integration - this is the secret sauce which lets your IVR mediate your calls, by connecting your conversations to the technology needed for tone-based interaction

Queue callback

Not everyone has time to listen to music, so offering them an automatic callback lets your caller hold their place in the virtual queue, without having to physically hang on

Decision tree

The flowchart of options that your callers navigate as part of your IVR, to route their call to the correct place

Integrated IVR

When your IVR is connected with another database such as your CRM or product knowledge base, and entry of data through the IVR can provide additional context to the agent (such as providing the right support article, when the customer enters an error code their product has displayed)

Natural language processing (NLP)

Artificial intelligence which can parse meaning from everyday conversation, instead of having to receive specific limited voice commands

Smart routing

An intelligent call routing method that uses pre-collected data about the caller to connect them to the most suitable agent - for example, the one they spoke to most recently

Call queue

That’s what you’re in, while you’re hanging on waiting to be attended. IVRs can help minimize the call queue and waiting time, thus reducing frustration for your callers

IVR messages

These are the recorded snippets which direct your callers to take the next action to resolve their query: keep them simple, short, and sweet (see below for best practices)

Single level IVR

The simplest of menus, where calls are routed to the right department via a single keystroke

Text-to-speech

Technology which synthesizes voice from a written message

Call center

A business’ telephone unit where calls for sales or support are received, or outbound calls made. Today this may be a virtual center, with agents operating from their own home

Keypress

The act of sending a command to an IVR via entering a number - which could be actually pressing a key, or even dialing a number, but these days is more likely to be a tap on a keyboard!

Music on-hold

Once you pass through the IVR there may still be a wait before your call can be attended - so you’ll hear some relaxing melody, to confirm that your call remains connected

Hunt groups

This is an algorithm or process which works in conjunction with your IVR to get your caller connected quickly - for example, if they select ‘accounts’ in the IVR menu, the hunt group designated accounts will ring everyone in that department (unless you have set up ‘smart routing’, see above.

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